The Paris photographer called to say that he would like to take a family portrait. Wallis Franken Montana, the vivacious American former model popular in the haute world of French fashion and married to designer Claude Montana, thought that meant he wanted her to pose with her two grown daughters from a former liaison and her two grandchildren. But the photographer had something else in mind, Wallis later confided to a friend. He told her he wanted to shoot her with Claude, Claude’s latest boyfriend, and the new young fitting model who Wallis feared might be taking her place with the mercurial designer.
In the three years since she had married the hard-partying and openly gay Montana in a wedding that stunned even the normally blasé fashion world, Wallis Franken had endured terrible physical and emotional abuse from her complicated and unconventional husband. Friends had begged her to leave him, but she told them that she was “obsessed” with Montana. She had been his muse and his ally since he started out in the mid-70s, and she thought of him not only as a genius but also as her alter ego.
“He’s was sort of like her fate, her dark angel,” says Wallis’s friend Maxime de la Falaise. “She’d been in love with Claude for years.” Yet after decades of putting up with all the men and the nocturnal comings and goings in Montana’s life—not to mention his jealousy and possessiveness of her—the addition of the young fitting model, at a time when Wallis told friends Montana was ridiculing her as “old and ugly,” seemed particularly rattling. “Isn’t that weird?” she asked her friend Carolyn Schultz about the photographer’s request a few days before she returned to Paris from New York last May. But nobody, not even her family, seemed to have the slightest inkling of the depth of her despair. As usual, Wallis managed to fool everybody.
With her Louise Brooks bob, her lithe, androgynous body, and her raucous laugh, Wallis Franken was celebrated for her taste and style, but even more for her sparkling, care-free nature. To the sophisticates of Paris’s couture world, who knew her so well, she was never in a bad mood, but always warm, full of ideas, and ready for a good time. “She did not have the personality of a model but of a woman,” says designer Hervé Léger. “We do not find what she had in girls now. She became a real Parisienne. Even though we all know she didn’t have an easy time, I never saw her anxious or depressed. Wallis projected crème fraîche.”
Because she had natural chic and a creative spark, she became a muse not only to Montana but also to designers Michel Klein and Fernando Sanchez in New York. “If you put your clothes on Wallis, you’d know immediately if it was right,” says Sanchez. “She had an innate sense of elegance,” says Loulou de la Falaise, daughter of Maxime. “When working with friends she admired, she was like a brilliant editor—neat, sharp, supportive.”
Wallis was a fabulous cook and possessed a good enough singing voice to record the hit “Étrange Affaire” in 1984. Music was also a cover for sadness. “You’d talk about something heavy and she’d answer with a song—‘I’m singing in the rain’ or ‘Good morning heartache,’” says Paris nightclub impresario Guy Cuevas. “She liked bubbles. We were nightclubbers—we wore bubbles so well.”
Her heyday on the runway was in the 70s, before the era of the supermodel, when lucrative product-endorsement contracts were rare. But at 48 she remained a fixture on the fashion scene, still able to wow them last March at Montana’s show at the Institute of the Arab World on the Left Bank. “You could see her person—there was a vulnerability in those eyes. How many models actually reveal that?” says Mark Van Amringe of Details magazine?s Paris office. “Wallis was the first mannequin to give the impression that the image belonged to her, not to the couturier,” says Christian Lacroix’s business partner, Jean-Jacques Picart. “She became an international figure.”
In late April and early May, Wallis spent a wonderful two weeks in New York, tending to her aging mother, seeing old friends, buying gifts for Montana, and visiting a Chinese herbalist, to whom she recited a litany of menopausal symptoms. She told him, for example, that unstoppable tears would sometimes flow from her eyes, but she never mentioned the possibility of depression. She said she was excited that her daughter, Rhea, 26, who had two small daughters, was about to give birth to a grandson. “She left in very high spirits,” says Sanchez. Wallis made a date to meet Sanchez three weeks later at his house in Marrakech. Then she flew home, arriving on Monday morning, May 6.
She spent Tuesday at Montana’s boutique on Avenue Marceau, playing host to a German TV crew, choosing outfits for the young fitting model to pose in, treating the visitors to jokes and champagne. Her younger daughter, Celia, 24, who worked at the boutique, was also on hand to help out. “She smiled a lot and talked to everybody,” says the TV producer, Alexandra von Schledorn. She and Montana were polite and careful with each other.
Nobody saw her on Wednesday, yet it was not unusual for her to take to her bed for 24 hours at a time. Neighbors who had previously complained to the police of loud music and rows emanating from Montana’s apartment on the Rue de Lille in the chic Seventh Arrondissement didn’t bother to look out to the back courtyard in the early morning hours when they heard a kind of thump. It wasn’t until seven hours later, on Thursday, May 9, that Wallis Franken’s bloodied body was discovered splattered on the cobblestones. She was wearing black leggings, socks, and a white shirt that was torn—a detail reportedly of interest to the Paris police.
The concierge could not even tell who she was. She had apparently taken a swan dive out the second-story kitchen window, a drop of 25 feet. The police, who woke Montana to make the identification, questioned him for hours. They found her jewelry lined up neatly on the kitchen table. Montana apparently told the police as well as Wallis’s family that he had felt a draft during the night and had closed the kitchen window, but had not looked outside. He said the last time he saw Wallis alive was in the wee hours of Wednesday, May 8, when she fell asleep on the living-room sofa. By the time he left for work that day, she had moved to her own room, or so he assumed. He did not check. Nor did he bother to look in on her Wednesday night when he returned.
The body was not removed from the courtyard until midafternoon. After an autopsy, which showed no marks or signs of self-defense on her body but which did show that she had ingested alcohol and cocaine, the French authorities have officially ruled Wallis Franken’s death a suicide by defenestration. Her family accepts that verdict. Nevertheless, her older brother Randy, who lives in Germany, and her mother, who lives in New York, both gave statements to the French police. They also engaged a lawyer who, according to Randy Franken, “made clear to authorities that there was a history of abuse.”
What convinced Randy that his sister took her own life, however, was the height of the kitchen window. “I’m six foot three, and the sill hits me at my chest. If you wanted to push someone out, it would be a real job.” But these facts have not stopped the distraught and incredulous friends of Wallis Franken from blaming the diminutive Claude Montana for contributing to her death. (He, in turn, has made no public statement of any kind about his wife or her death. Neither has his press office. He declined to speak to Vanity Fair.)
‘I feel that no matter what Claude did, whether his hands were on her or not, the lifestyle he gave her, the way he abused her mentally, emotionally, physically, pushed her over the edge,” says Wallis’s closest friend, former model turned painter Tracey Weed. “I have no doubt that he was a contributing factor to my sister’s demise, perhaps a major contributing factor,” says Randy Franken. “We all have the same idea,” echoes painter Vincent Scali, Wallis’s witness at her marriage to Montana. “Everybody knew that his part in her death was enormous.” How did Montana contribute? “By treating her like shit, saying, ‘You’re no one, you’re nobody, you’re a weight on my life.’ … He knew Wallis was weak.… We did everything in our power to keep her away from him, and she went back. She was a masochist.”
Scali waited in a bar with Michel Klein until a call came assuring him that Montana would not be present at the dinner-wake for Wallis attended by her closest friends and her family at the apartment of Maurice Tinchant, a film producer.
The official memorial arranged by Montana on June 23, at the Lutheran Evangelical Church in the Fourth Arrondissement under gray skies, was dank and graceless. About 125 people, many of whom looked as if they came out primarily at night, filed into the small, gloomy church. White roses in the shape of a heart—the only flowers—were placed behind a jar containing a portion of Wallis’s ashes. Montana, wearing a black hooded leather jacket and black leather pants, had dyed orange-yellow hair and appeared to be wearing makeup and lip gloss. He got up and mumbled some lines of poetry, which were inaudible even to the minister and Wallis’s two daughters, seated in the front row.
After he sat down, the minister further incensed Wallis’s friends by referring to the cult of beauty made by “your professional milieu” and explaining her death in terms of her fears of getting old. He even made oblique reference to her drug use: “This fear can also get caught in one’s throat, unable to take shape, and then flees toward the whole gamut of anti-fear products supplied by human civilization.… The brutal end to the woman you are crying for, wasn’t it ultimately one of God’s ways to respond to her fear, to that fear she could no longer tolerate and that had already caused her to abandon her career some 10 years ago?” Who could have prompted him in this direction, since he did not know Wallis personally? Wallis, her friends insist, was not afraid of aging. “That’s ridiculous. Wallis went to her wedding with her grandchild,” says her friend Anne-Marie Barthelmy. “If she was scared about age she wouldn’t do that.” Model turned actress Donna Mitchell agrees: “Claude is the one totally obsessed with his age. She represented getting older to him, and he couldn’t tolerate the evidence.”
Although there was organ music, no hymns were sung, and no one else spoke. Wallis’s daughters were prepared to read from The Prophet, by Kahlil Gibran, but they didn’t feel the opportunity presented itself. Both were remarkably composed. Like their father, Philippe de Henning, who always remained close to Wallis, they refused to join the chorus condemning Montana. “It was their story, and I don’t want to have any anger whatsoever. There’s nothing against him. That’s the way I see it, because I want Wallis to be free and go away happy,” Celia de Henning told me two weeks after the memorial. Within a week, however, Celia says, she had left Montana’s employ, after he had accused her of taking things and making it clear that “he didn’t want me to stay at all. He just freaked out.” Nonetheless, the daughters did not want a scandal. “Whatever Wallis did, she made the decision,” Rhea said. “Here in France,” fashion historian Katell le Bourhis explained, “whatever is done in the name of love tends to erase all moral judgments.”
Some of Wallis’s family and friends, however, boycotted the memorial. ?I felt, Include me out,? said Randy Franken. “I’m not going to be part of his dog-and-pony act. I was thinking, It’s Claude’s apologia.” After the service, the congregation came forward to express condolences to the two girls and de Henning as well as to Montana, who was with his sister, Jacqueline. When Montana exited the church, he spoke to no one, and no one spoke to him. He proceeded directly to a waiting taxi, got in, and lit a Marlboro. For five minutes he sat there until his sister and other members of his entourage joined him and the cab pulled out into the drizzling rain. Since then, Montana has called Wallis’s mother only once, and he has never expressed his sorrow.
“Why didn’t she have an elegant death?” asks Jean-Jacques Picart. “She represents the pure, the elegant. She had a violent, filthy death, like in a bad movie.”
Wallis Franken began life far more stylishly. She started modeling at 16, when a neighbor in Briarcliff Manor, New York, J. Frederick Smith, showed pictures of Wallis and Randy to Eileen Ford of the Ford modeling agency. Wallis’s mother, Dorothy, had been a showroom model in New York, and was known in the suburban community as impeccable. “She never had a shabby moment,” says smith. Her father, Randolph, was the dapper son of Leo Franken, a German who founded a string of women’s stores at the turn of the century called Lee Franken, Inc.
Randolph and his brother, Wallace, for whom Wallis was named, were raised as “little merchant princes,” according to the late Wallace Franken’s autobiography, The Buyer: A Lifetime in the Decorative Arts, to be published this month by his daughter, Susan Franken Anderson. They lived in a big house off Prospect Park in Brooklyn that was staffed by five, and their aunt, Julie, a talented dressmaker, established herself as Madame Segeler, the “leading couturier of Brooklyn.”
Tall and debonair, Rany and Wally Franken, only a year apart in age and oozing charm, excelled at exactly the same things Wallis would—singing, swimming, driving, and partying. Yet there has always been a kind of family lassitude. Randolph had a trained tenor voice but never did anything with it. They were great athletes and swam with Johnny Weissmuller and other members of the U.S. Olympic team; they were not on the team. The Franken boys were quintessential good-time Charlies, shooting craps and hanging out with café society across Europe. Wallis’ father’s first wife was a Ziegfeld showgirl, and they lived in a Fifth Avenue penthouse above a store he had opened in the late 30s. That marriage was short-lived, and he married Dorothy in 1939. Uncle Wally went out to California to become an antiques buyer and joined Alcoholics Anonymous.
By the time Wallis and her two older brothers, Randy and Lee—who lives in Colorado—were growing up in “Cheever country” in the 50s and 60s, the family fortune had dwindled. But the habit for pleasure had not. “They were always interested in feeling good, looking good, and having a good time,” says Tracy Weed. Wallis’s father became vice president of Russeks, a women’s clothing store on Fifth Avenue at 36th Street. Wallis’s mother spent hours in her bedroom reading magazines and Women’s Wear Daily; Dorothy’s mother, who lived with them, taught Wallis to cook. By the time Wallis was in high school, Russeks had closed, the family had moved to a house in Pleasantville, and Wallis’s father had had to take a job as a salesman at Wallachs men’s store on Fifth Avenue. He died in 1967, when Wallis was 19.
At Pleasantville High, according to school friends, on big nights out the popular kids in class would drink till they dropped. “Wallis never did that,” says her closest high-school chum, Dede Harmon Friese. “I don’t even remember her dating in high school.” She was already modeling then. “She wore tights when everyone else wore loafers and knee socks,” says Linda Roberts, another classmate. “She may only have had two skirts, but no one wore them with such style,” said Friese. “She had an open, friendly way that made you like her.” Wallis was also learning to keep her private anxieties to herself. “She grew up in a household of terrible financial insecurity,” says Friese. “That’s one thing she’d talk to me about. I kept it a secret.”
In her adolescence, at least, Wallis appeared to have a strong sense of self. “That’s why I find her death so strange,” says Friese. “She couldn’t be led into something she didn’t want to do.” Joe Hunter, former president of Ford Models, says, “When she was a kid, there was nobody banging her around. She told me who she should be working for.” In fact, says Hunter, in those days most models in the “ingenue” category were “blonde and blue-eyed with flipped hair.” In contrast, Wallis was one of the first to sport Vidal Sassoon’s 60s-defining geometric haircut. She was “thinner, with dark, short hair—a breakthrough in the modeling business. What carried her forth was her energy and her personality over her looks.”
In 1966, when Wallis was 18, she was sent on a job to Greece, and decided to come home via Paris. As soon as she saw the French capital, “her heart was captured,” says Randy Franken. She asked her mother if she could stay. “I said ‘Fine, it’s O.K. if you think you can afford it!’” Dorothy Franken recalls. “Wa-leece” clicked immediately with the French. She was always a people pleaser and such a graceful dancer that Régine had her come to her famed disco night after night to help attract a crowd. Women’s Wear Daily would photograph her on the street. Flying around to exotic places, making easy money—the model’s life seemed heavenly.
Her one ongoing concern was that her mother, who had moved into the spacious apartment she occupies today, remain secure. Yet in retrospect her longtime “soul sister,” Tracy Weed, thinks the experience of being on their own so young was harmful. She shudders that today the models are even younger. “Our bond was that we were survivors together, pampered and catered to but worked like horses,” says Weed. “Wallis was a master of fitting in. We didn’t learn any of the things that people who grew up more normally learned, like who you are, what you want, what is good for you and what is bad. Everybody smooches up to you so you’ll perform that day.… We did not learn how to shoulder responsibility for our behavior and our choices.”
As a result, says Weed, Wallis did not know how to defend herself. “Wallis would do what a lot of us who had early success and money do—desert ourselves. Wallis and I shared very successful careers. We were doing really well at 20. It seemed so easy. Later, when it didn’t come so easy, we gave up on ourselves.” She adds, “If we take Wallis’s life from the time of the illness of her dad, there is the thread of self-destruction—there is none of the motivation of someone who thinks well about herself.”
Weed says they lived for the moment, ran away from problems, and stupidly fell for the glamour. “The message is that glamour is not what people make it out to be. It’s a sick world where awful things go on. Think of a young girl not yet 20 showing up and being talked about as if she could not hear—spoken of as an object, criticized physically. This sort of orientation robs you of yourself.”
Nevertheless, at the time, Wallis loved her work and showed no hesitation whatsoever. Her choice in men, however, betrayed a fatal dependency.
Philippe de Henning was a dashing young Formulas Three racecar driver Wallis met one night in 1968 at the popular disco Castel’s—“my second home,” he says. Soon they were inseparable, and she accompanied him on the racing circuit, working steadily but scheduling her career to fit his. On a trip to America in 1969, they became snowbound in upstate New York and got hooked on vegetarian food. From that point onward, during three pregnancies, Wallis followed an extremely severe regime and became an excellent vegetarian cook.
In her life with Philippe, Wallis was not only the breadmaker but also frequently the breadwinner. Her poured the money he got from his family into cars. In 1971, when Rhea was still a baby and Wallis was pregnant with Celia, the couple had no home. They lived in the back of a VW bus in the Bois de Boulogne, followed a naturopath, and studied the teachings of Krishnamurti. Today de Henning is a Scientologist, as is Rhea. Tracy Weed was astounded when Wallis informed her that “Philippe told her she needn’t bother to think anymore—he’d do all the thinking for them.” De Henning contends they made many decisions mutually. Carolyn Schultz says of those years, “She?d go into this appalling subservient mode.” If anyone questioned why they ate as they did or at times left their young children unattended, she’d say, “Ask Philippe.”
The French were charmed that Wallis ran around from assignment to assignment in overalls and clogs. She was the original “hippie vegetarian model,” who took her babies on shoots. Wallis was a chameleon who loved to act for the camera, to become what photographers asked her to be. By this time she and her family were living in the country outside Paris.
“She had time to do everything,” explains Rhea, “model, cook, do the bread, do the yoga, take care of us.” Frequently Wallis’s routine would be to get up at four a.m. says Tracy Weed, “start cooking for everybody, take the train an hour into Paris, work from nine in the morning until nine p.m., get on the train again, and get home a little before midnight.” Carolyn Schultz adds, “I would see her tired and exasperated, but she’d never let me see it get to her.” Photographer Steve Hiett, who used to visit Wallis and Philippe, remembers, “She was the most positive person I ever met.… They seemed to be the ideal couple, but with very strict rules.”
In November 1974, when Wallis was seven months pregnant, she and Philippe and the two little girls drove a specially converted Land Rover into the desert of Morocco and ended up living for three months in a primitive Berber village. The adventure provided Philippe with an opportunity to shoot stunning pictures and write articles about the daring young couple living off the land. Wallis went right along, and, for the centerpiece of one glowing article, described what she later told friends was the horrendous birth of their third daughter, Fatima, as Philippe snapped pictures. “One of the women clasped me round the bosom, another kicked me into a squatting position, and it all happened very fast, very easily. Then someone pushed a long braid of her hair down my throat. The idea was to produce dry contractions, like retching, to force out the placenta, and it worked. Next they stepped all over me—massage, you see, and very effective, I’m sure, except that a few days before, I’d fallen out of the car and injured my ankle. That was the first thing they trod on. Agony.”
When they were back in Paris and Fatima was three months old, she died in her crib, apparently of sudden-infant-death syndrome. Within days, because they needed the money, Wallis was off to Brazil on a shoot with Tracy Weed. “That was the first time I remember Wallis and I talking about suicide,” says Weed. “The final solution of it, to get out of this pain.… Before that, everything just rolled off Wallis.” Despite her anguish, Wallis usually kept her own counsel. In fact, Philippe and her daughters insist that Wallis never discussed suicide, at least not with them.
Wallis’s life changed dramatically in 1976 after a trip to Japan promoting French fashion. The up-and-coming designer Claude Montana was also there but had yet to become an obsession. Wallis appeared in 21 fashion shows in 21 days and began her rise as the hotshot runway model when she got back to Paris. “She was a legend in her own little world of modeling,” says Monique Pillard, her booker at the time. Designers clamored for her, and in the 1978 season she reportedly did more shows than any other model. “Chanel was deadly in those days,” says Marian McEvoy, editor of Elle Decor, “and she was a breath of fresh air.”
Japan provided a crucial emotional turning point. Wallis had an affair with a well-known designer there and decided to leave Philippe. Although the designer soon married someone else, leaving Wallis devastated, her decision to part from Philippe remained firm. The girls were eventually sent to boarding school. “She took the initiative of parting, but she was very right,” says Philippe de Henning. He was, he says, a “conformist at the time, and she helped me a lot to change.”
For the newly emerging Claude Montana, it was quite a coup to have Wallis Franken become his muse. “She loved him right from the start,” says Tracy Weed. The renegade son of a bourgeois family, he produced his first real collection in 1977, and Wallis helped pave the way for him. He was introverted, whereas she knew everybody and believed madly in his genius. “She was in total admiration of his creative ability,” says Tracy Weed. “It was not important that he was into men. Early on, she thought she could overcome his homosexuality.” Their birthdays were a day apart, and over time Wallis came to feel that they were destined to spend their lives together.
“I guess he dealt in the rough trade,” says Randy Franken. “I used to see Claude come into Club Sept [a gay Parisian disco of the 70s and 80s] with 20 leather boys,” says photographer Michel Comte. “All the male prostitutes used to hang out on the street in front.” Much of the hard-edged severity of the gay S&M look of that time—big shoulders, black leather, hoods, and studs—ended up on Claude Montana’s runway, adapted for women. With her edgy bob and boy’s body, Wallis was the perfect showcase for Montana’s meticulously crafted collections.
Although the two professed an extraordinary affinity, the relationship was never easy. Big-time designers operate under tremendous pressure, and Montana and Wallis stayed out till all hours practically every night. “Her group was renowned for excess in all its forms,” says stylist Polly Hamilton, who worked with Wallis. She was his star fitting model, but Montana also used her to vent his fury—perhaps because she let him. “As early as his third show, Claude would throw Wallis out right before the show. Then he’d take her back. But he wouldn’t always take her back as time went on,” says Tracy Weed. “Montana could control whether Wallis received any credit or glory.”
Amid this turmoil, cocaine was beginning to encroach on Wallis’s life. “There got to be a time when you didn’t see Wallis unless she was high,” says Tracy Weed. By the time she quit modeling in 1980, her reputation as a party girl was set. “She was kind of Queen of Paris,” says Vincent Scali. Guy Cuevas thought that “even when she was drunk” Wallis remained beautiful. “Ah, those says were the oldies-but-goodies times. One night a new club was opening in the north of France—we all went on a private railcar, and Wallis wore this feather, and we were screaming, laughing.… Then came the punk, then came the sad.” “And what about cocaine?” I ask. “Yes, it made for too lax a culture.”
Many of Wallis’s French friends say that she was “a lazy girl.” The reality seems somewhat more complicated. Formed by the nonmaterialistic values of the 60s, Wallis didn’t pay any attention to managing money. Katell le Bourhis says, “For Wallis it was more important to be an original talent than to be a millionaire.” Her knowledge of fashion and her instinct for style were vast. Yet it didn’t occur to her to try to cash in on her contacts, and she obviously didn’t know how to ask for money or professional respect. Her modeling days were largely over by 1980, and after that Wallis floundered professionally. Instead of claiming her rightful place in a business she knew inside and out, she became the decorative, amusing companion of the chichi fast set, literally singing for her coke and her caviar. Time after time Wallis put her all into helping Claude Montana or Michel Klein, for example, but somehow she was never rewarded with a real job.
“Several times she found herself penniless and destitute,” says Weed, who remembers that once in 1983 Wallis went a week without eating. “She just about got herself out on the street.” During that time, the owner of the Hôtel de Beaune gave her a small room free of charge. For a brief period Wallis had a job decorating the windows of a boutique. It was then that she visited Susan Moncur, to be interviewed on tape for an exposé Moncur was writing about modeling. Ironically, Moncur did not think Wallis sounded sad enough to be included in her book. “I feel it’s my duty to talk to you,” Moncur tells me in Paris. “She certainly picked the wrong man. He’s obviously a destructive fore, not only for her but for himself too.”
“We both love each other terribly, but it’s not the right kind of situation,” Wallis says on the tape. “We wouldn’t go through all that we go through—because we have awful fights sometimes—but we can’t not make up.… It’s a little bit of a complicated situation, and he’s very possessive.” “Really?” asks Moncur. “Oh, yeah. Like, he makes scandals. That’s why it’s difficult for me to be doing something with fashion, because I couldn’t work for anyone else in fashion. But he wasn’t offering me a job.” Rather, Wallis related that Montana, whose career was advancing, sabotaged her. “He wouldn’t make it so easy for me. I couldn’t really work with anyone else. I tried a little—it was a disaster. I got scenes—more or less jealousy. So that made it difficult for me to find something to do.”
Wallis also admits on the tape that she wasn’t really equipped to get another job. “I blame modeling for a lot of things. That’s why I’m having so much trouble getting into doing something else, because I was very spoiled by modeling, and I get myself terribly involved and carried away with men.” Interestingly, though, there had not been many men in her life. What allowed her to get carried away were the buffers that modeling provided. “The agency puts up with things if you’re working fairly well and you’ve got a name, even if you don’t make a lot of money. They protect your image. But when you stop being a model and you have no agent anymore and you deal directly with the people for money, for everything, that is a disaster.… All of a sudden you have to discuss money, you have to defend yourself, you have to make up all your own excuses—it’s awful.” Wallis was so insecure before doing a fashion shoot six months after she “retired,” she says, that “I bought a couple of grams of coke and was coked out of my mind during the shoot.”
Wallis had always enjoyed traveling for work. Now she found herself moving around a lot just in Paris—identifying with others and seeking to please, much as she once had for those behind the camera. “I stay at different people’s apartments. I go for dinner and stay for the night. I go and stay at Claude’s.” She confides, however, that the moving around “gets me very confused. If I stay too often with people, first of all I get very involved with them immediately. If I go and stay with Loulou two nights, I’m completely involved.… If I go and stay with Claude a couple of days, I can’t bear the thought of a day without him.” Wallis nevertheless rejects the suggestion of Moncur’s that modeling robs you of an identity. Wallis declares, ‘I always felt there was a definite me.”
A mariage blanc was nothing unusual in the fashion world, but the news that Wallis and Claude were getting married came as a surprise nonetheless. Everyone knew that Claude didn’t even try to be discreet. They were married in Paris on July 22, 1993, and shortly after that, Carolyn Schultz remembers, she and Wallis were walking down Christopher Street in Greenwich Village past what she considered the scourge of the neighborhood, a very rough gay bar. Wallis said, “Oh, I was just here the night before last.” “You were in there?” Carolyn exclaimed. “Yes,” said Wallis, “it’s one of Claude’s favorite places.” She also told Carolyn about a night in Washington, D.C., with Claude when “they were trying to buy drugs and shots started ringing out and they had to flee the scene.” What really blew Carolyn’s mind, though, was that while Claude was staying out all night Wallis was in a New York hotel room washing and ironing his white T-shirts.
Tracy Weed was so upset when she learned of the engagement that on a trip to Paris she tried to talk Wallis out of her decision. In Claude’s apartment, she said, “I found the entire bidet overflowing with prescription drugs.” Wallis naïvely, say friends, felt her love could surmount all obstacles. “At first she thought if she was just patient enough and her commitment was strong enough, she could overcome his problems,” says Donna Mitchell, referring to Montana’s use of drugs and his promiscuity. “She really felt that if she loved him enough she could save him. It wasn’t a sentiment he ever returned.”
From a business standpoint, the wedding was auspicious for Claude. The year before he had suffered the setback of having his couture contract with Lanvin canceled, and he needed to attract new backing and favorable press. Significantly, the wedding was held in the middle of couture week, when the fashion press was gathered in Paris.
For once, Wallis had made some demands. She told him she’d come back only as his wife. She had been living off and on for a few years in New York with her mother, at first scraping by, disappointed that a job to help sell Michel Klein’s clothes in New York did not materialize, but also posing for photographer Steven Meisel—she made the cover of Italian Vogue—and working part-time as a muse and fitting model for Fernando Sanchez. She even appeared as the Night Porter in Madonna’s “Justify My Love” video. Drugs were not a big part of her life.
Claude had meanwhile broken up with his longtime boyfriend, and now he begged Wallis to come back. “Claude could never stand to be alone,” says Tracy Weed. Wallis attempted to work out a deal. “Basically she said, ‘Let’s get married or let’s not do this anymore,’” said Donna Mitchell. Her friends maintain that Wallis claimed she had a verbal contract that Claude would help support Mrs. Franken. Instead, Claude’s former boyfriend traded place with Wallis. He moved in with her mother, and still rents a room there.
For the wedding at the town hall in the Seventh Arrondissement, the bride wore a white satin cowboy jacket over a tunic and pants. The groom wore buckskin. The party afterward was trippy, and the press went along. “We have always loved each other,” said Montana. There was no honeymoon period to get over.
Carolyn Schultz started receiving phone calls from Wallis, often while Wallis nursed a bottle of champagne. “Claude goes out to walk the dog and he doesn’t come back,” she lamented from Paris, or “he returns with a young boy.”
Carolyn once suggested that a relationship had to be 50-50. Wallis just laughed and said, “You don’t understand anything.” The alternative was going out to clubs and doing drugs. “I did drugs with them sometimes at parties at clubs,” says stylist Jérôme Puch. “After they married, nothing changed. Claude continued as he was.”
When the picture that opens this story was shot for Vanity Fair, shortly after Wallis and Claude were married, the photo session was supposed to begin at seven p.m. in a suite in the Ritz in Paris. Wallis finally appeared at one a.m. She had been waiting for Claude, who never arrived. He showed up on the second night, about two or three a.m., “very high,” according to an observer. “Then a person came in and brought drugs to Montana. It was quite a shooting, quite odd. He treated her well, though. They were quite friendly.”
In late March 1994, Steven Meisel asked Wallis to pose for a Donna Karan campaign. Claude refused to let her go to New York. Wallis said she wanted to give the money she would receive to her mother. Claude flew into a rage and, in front of Wallis’s daughter Celia, “began to beat her like a savage,” says Vincent Scali. “She had to go to the hospital and stay away for two months, until the bruises healed. She hid in Biarritz.” Three of her friends encouraged her to make a record of her swollen black-and-blue face and her other injuries, and sent her to a lawyer after she had seen a doctor. “The idea was to get her away from him,” says Scali, “to put him into deep trouble if he ever did it again.” They urged her to get her own apartment in Paris, but to no avail. Suddenly Claude, who had never called Wallis while she was in Biarritz, “became very sweet,” says Scali. “I guess he charmed her again, and she went back.”
Wallis’s brother Randy heard about the beating later. “She told me, ‘Don’t worry, it’s not going to happen again.’ My sister is a grown woman. She gets to make her own decisions. If she wants to stay with a guy who abuses her—up to a point, I think, it’s your life.”
And yet it wasn’t as if Claude’s treatment of Wallis were not known in the fashion world. When I asked Fernando Sanchez about Claude’s allegedly harming Wallis, he answered, “But that’s common knowledge.” Scali tried once more to get Wallis to leave Claude, after Montana became furious during a three a.m. phone call from Italy because Wallis had invited Scali and her daughter Celia to have dinner in Claude’s apartment. “He was always trying to isolate her from her family and friends,” says Scali. “Her bags were packed. Then about four a.m., Claude’s sister calls Wallis. Then Claude called back, and they talked for a half-hour, and suddenly it was ‘O.K., darling, I’ll pick you up at the airport.’” Anne-Marie Barthelemy remarks, “You really can’t blame Claude for everything.”
Claude Montana is not considered a hot designer anymore. In April 1995, after a Montana security man struck a photographer at his show, a majority of the photographers boycotted the show altogether. Diplomatically, the top people in Paris fashion refer to Montana as “having remained true to himself.” Translation: he hasn’t moved on. Wallis must have been a constant reminder of that. Although Guy Cuevas says he saw the two kiss in his club five weeks before Wallis’s death, there were more sinister reports of their frequent fights and of Wallis’s drinking. Last winter Wallis called the police to gain entry to Claude’s apartment after he had reportedly thrown her out by her hair.
While she was in New York on her last trip, not drinking heavily or taking drugs, the two reportedly fought heatedly on the phone because Claude would not agree to buy her mother her apartment. In Tokyo a few weeks previously, Montana had left her in her hotel room to fend for herself while he went out on the town. In New York, Wallis complained that Claude often refused to even take her calls. All Wallis told her mother, however, was that “certain people are trying to demean me.” And although few who knew her well would have ever thought that she would take her own life, Tracy Weed—who herself did drugs with her—insists, “Over the years Wallis and I had a lot of conversations about offing ourselves.”
Back home in Paris, Wallis must have considered her prospects bleak indeed. If she had represented Claude’s ideal in his glory days, she must now have reminded him of his recent failures. Her position as muse had been usurped by a younger woman, and she could not provide her mother with security. Impulsively, perhaps, she concluded that there was only one way out.
“She was put in circumstances that were unbearable, and, not seeing any other entanglement possible, she did what I think of as flying away,” says Maxime de la Falaise. “During the summertime in the South of France, we all used to swim in the nude. Wallis had such a clean body—it was as if she was not naked at all. She looked like a greyhound or some sort of fish or strange smooth bird. In a way,” she continues, “I believe that she took off as a free spirit out of the window. She found life too oppressive, and she flew away like a bird.”